Grief and Death for Non-Believers


I don't know if there is any interest in a thread like this. But I am on my third round of losing a parent (father, stepmother, now mother), and I find myself so frustrated and irritated by the religiosity that is pushed on me when I'm dealing with issues grief and death. You may know the kind I'm talking about. "They're going to a better place." Or, "You'll see them again someday!" Or, "Take comfort in god." Or, "Trust in god, this is part of his plan." I know people are usually well-meaning, but I DON'T find comfort in that at all. I find it dismissive of my own belief system, to be honest.

As it is, I have a really hard time with death. Because I don't believe that I'll see them again, my grief seems all the more devastating. It also makes me fear death far more than I did when I was a believer. I notice this in my mother too - she has never been a believer, even back when I was, and now she is hanging on to a life of suffering because it's better than ceasing to exist. I don't even know how to comfort her myself. It would be easier to deal with all this if I could just believe in some kind of afterlife, but I don't. I have wrangled with spiritual issues all my life, and my conclusion is that....I HOPE there's something, but I really don't think there is.

Anyone else in this non-believer boat and want to join me in wrangling with your own death and grief issues here? Or maybe you're a believer who doesn't know how to comfort non-believers, but would like to explore that?

(I strongly urge the religious folks on this board to avoid using this thread as an opportunity to proselytize to an already vulnerable group of people.)



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cwillie - I do get the distinction, and I'll definitely keep that in mind during this time my mother is experiencing. It's entirely possible that we're on different pages when it comes to fearing death (as opposed to fearing dying), and I may not have given that enough thought!

When my stepmother was dying, it was definitely death she feared. She was not afraid of dying itself; she was the bravest person I've ever known when it comes to dying. It was not knowing what did or didn't come next, and particularly the religious concepts of death that had been fed to her from early childhood, that caused her stress. While she had left the world of faith behind her, in her dying days, she was clearly agitated by the fears her mother had instilled in her, and continued to push on her even when she was long into adulthood - that she was going to hell, that the devil was going to get her, etc.  (Edit:  Her mother raised her with constant threats of eternal damnation and suffering, and even in later life, told her she was going to hell for divorcing her first husband.  Her mother never let up on this, to her own dying day.) 

I felt quite dumbstruck when it came to this. I didn't know what to say, how to comfort her. The only moment of death-related (as opposed to dying-related) comfort I ever remember providing her was when she grabbed me by the upper arms, stared into my eyes, and insistently asked, "Are you afraid of the devil?" My reply was, "There is no devil. I don't know what happens next, but if there's one thing I do know, it's that there's no devil and there's no hell to be afraid of." And she laid back on her bed, satisfied. Maybe more satisfied that she had successfully inculcated me against that fear, rather than actually believing what I said, though! I'll never know....

My ambivalence made it difficult for me to comfort my mother too (back when she still was able to express herself) since I don't really know whether she is a true believer or is as ambivalent as I am. I think sometimes it is as much fear of dying as it is fear of death (if you get the distinction) and I was able to comfort her by telling her I would always be there for her and she wouldn't be alone. I know when my brother was afraid he asked us to hold his hand so whenever I sat with him I did, even after he couldn't reciprocate anymore.

Sendhelp - That's why context is important. In this context, "believer" or "non-believer" refers god/higher power/afterlife. A person actually can be "without belief" in that context. (For example, as an agnostic, my father used to say he didn't believe, but he didn't disbelieve either. Not disbelieving isn't the same as believing.) As for rules, I didn't make any. I "strongly urged" people of faith not to proselytize. That doesn't make it a rule, it makes it a request. As you'll also notice in my original post, I encouraged believers who were interested in finding ways to provide comfort that genuinely helps non-believers to participate. If you've read the thread, you'll notice I've made no attempts to silence or exclude anyone, either when they have proselytized, or when the thread has gone off-topic. Instead, I have earnestly and openly engaged in the discussion, sharing my experiences and my perspective. I'm sorry you feel excluded here, but I'm not sure what else I can do to help you feel included. I certainly don't feel excluded from the believers' thread - I'm just not interested and I have nothing to contribute. Please feel free to pray for me. I'm not offended in the least. :-)

NomadSE - I've been following some of that quantum theory myself, about the connectedness of the universe. The concept that all matter is connected, and therefore one particle's action causes another particle's reaction, makes me imagine all the matter in the universe as a gigantic version of the butterfly effect! I don't necessarily think of universal connectedness as a version of god though. Maybe something bigger than god. Beyond god, or beyond our current, simplistic concept of a god. It's definitely a theory that appeals to me!

Ali - I totally appreciate what you're saying. And when someone tries to comfort me using religious language, I also try to be polite about it. What I find hard, and a huge part of the reason I started this thread, is not knowing how to comfort other non-believers. For example, as a non-believer, my mother is terrified of dying, terrified of ceasing to exist. And it's all well in theory to say: if there's nothing then you won't know you're dead, so it doesn't matter. But that doesn't help alleviate her fears. Her fear is a thing that matters. And as someone who feels similarly as a non-believer, the concept of nothing doesn't alleviate my own fears about my death, either. I can think intellectually about the idea of consciousness coming to an end, but I don't want my consciousness to come to an end, so it also hits me in a primal fear kind of way! If that makes sense. So I understand how my mother feels completely, and at the same time, I have no idea what to say to her that would ease her anxiety about dying.

cwillie - I'm glad to know you think the mods are pro-free speech, and I also appreciate that this thread (and the believers' thread too) has been allowed to exist. I agree totally that it's kind of impossible to talk about grief and death without also bringing spiritual concepts (or lack of spiritual concepts) into it. I can't imagine talking about one without being able to talk about the other.

jeannegibbs - I feel a lot the same way - it's not that I am offended by words of spiritual comfort. Rather, it's that those words are meaningless to me, and so they don't comfort me. I think when people offer spiritual comfort, they are often using the only tools they have at their disposal, and do genuinely mean well. And, I mean, as someone who also doesn't always know how to comfort non-believers (such as the situation with my mother I described above), I am just as interested in expanding my own toolbox as wanting to encourage others to expand theirs.

Everyone here "is a believer" in something.
I would not mind "offending someone" into the kingdom of God, but I also believe in following the rules of the country I am visiting.
So I feel that Dorianne made up her own rules that excluded me.
Of course I was offended.
So I quietly pray for people posting on the unbelievers thread, it is like a mission field with everyone all in one thread, it saves time. I can say that, as Windyridge freely posted about lawsuits against having a cresche in the town square.

Having specific threads designated for believers and unbelievers is exclusionary, from any perspective.

When CWillie first posted, about being uncomfortable about being expected to participate in communion, my belief about receiving communion (not in an unworthy manner/brings condemnation to oneself) made me wonder what is wrong with that minister, teaching error.

However, I have not posted. Not because I don't care about unbelievers and their beliefs, but I avoid debates and disputes, mostly, often, I think. Caring, compassion, and comfort are important, and are universal. But faith in the Lord God Almighty is personal.

I don't "believe" but I have no problem talking to my mom about her death in terms of God and to give her comfort. Although myself I believe it's nonsense. On a purely scientific note they are discovering more and more in quantum physics that suggests how all life is connected at the quantum level. Maybe that's my version of god. That sense of connectedness. The idea that after physical death our energy goes on. Our physical bodies are made of stardust. I like that. Ever wonder if earth is a prison planet?
I can't help wondering if God is something that we just don't understand now. Some significantly advanced science as to appear as a god.

But to refer to how to comfort a non believer, I'm in favor of the simple, heartfelt "I'm so sorry for your loss". Is there any way I can help you?

This topic made me think of the lyrics of the song What a Wonderful World.

The colors of the rainbow so pretty in the sky
Are also on the faces of people going by
I see friends shaking hands saying how do you do
They're really saying I love you

We express care and concern for each other in many ways, and most often people will express in a way they themselves would appreciate and want to hear.

I identify as agnostic-atheist. When someone shares their belief in the comfort of god with me, I appreciate that it's something that comforts them and that's all they're trying to convey. If it crosses into proselytizing, then I politely bow out. If politeness isn't an option (i.e., with my own mother), then I snark a little and I figure now they REALLY have a reason to be concerned for my eternal soul.

But the point is the same that's been mentioned a few times already: there's no harm meant by offering these words of comfort, and quite the opposite, it's someone's way of saying "I love you, I care about you, I wish you comfort." And so I accept that, w/o needing to police or analyze their choice of words.

That's just me. :-) It makes my life easier to approach things this way. My family is quite religious and prayers and ideas about faith are part of every gathering. I don't want them to ask me to change, so I don't ask them to change.

All in all the moderators are pretty pro free speech and seldom intervene anywhere unless comments cross the line, I think having a forum talking about elder care without allowing discussions surrounding grief, death and the afterlife (or lack thereof) would be denying the huge elephant in the room and I'm grateful that AgingCare is willing to police it.

Death, grief, mourning, offering comfort ... those are all appropriate topics for a caregivers' forum. How to offer condolences to a person who you know to be non-believer or whose faith is unknown to you is a legitimate question worthy of discussion. Particularly so since so many people appear to have not a clue!

I've been on this forum for many years. I shared many personal stories about my husband's journey with dementia, and learned from other people's stories. But when he died I was reluctant to make a big announcement of that, because I just didn't think I was up for all the condolences I would get that would be meaningless to me. It isn't that I would be "offended" by being assumed to be a Christian, but that I would feel belittled by the assumption. Hey, it isn't only people who share your beliefs who are worthy of being comforted.

Many of the people who make assumptions about the faith of others are kind, considerate, compassionate. They would never mean to belittle. But they have no clue whatsoever how to offer comfort without putting it in terms of their own beliefs. So I think this is a good topic, but I also think believers and non-believers alike ought to try to educate themselves about it.

BTW, I think the condolence threads have improved a lot here over the years. But I still would cringe if some of the "comfort" were aimed at me.

I can appreciate that, Gershun, and I appreciate your input, too. I guess I don't mind the debates, as they've been mainly soft debates and I find the subject interesting. But I do see your point. I try not to tell anyone what to believe or not believe, but I can see where things do get off-message. Hopefully this will be a good reminder to us all to remain respectful of one another's beliefs, or lack thereof. Or at least keep it contained and out of other threads!! :-)

Yes, your last line in your post. Some of the responses have been proselytizing in the opposite direction as well. Therein lies the problem with discussions based on faith, for or against. It just turns into a religious debate. I don't think you can start any thread where it specifies believer or non-believer without that happening. As I said before, I'm happy to discuss my belief in God privately with anyone, just don't wish to on this forum.

But........................having said that, I don't post on Smashque's thread and I won't post on this thread either. Carry on!

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